Crime novel set in Columbia

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Robert Friedman

Laura Lippman’s new book Wilde Lake takes place in the Columbia village where she grew up and attended Wilde Lake High School in the 1970s. Lippman, who now lives in Baltimore, is a New York Times bestselling author who has penned 24 other crime novels.
Photo by Leslie Unruh

“[Jim] Rouse was a good man…Yet Columbia, Maryland, the egalitarian experiment that he probably considered his greatest legacy, began in deceit.”

That’s what Luisa “Lu” Brant, the newly elected state’s attorney for Howard County, has to say about how Rouse stealthily acquired the land for his “new town” utopia, parcel by parcel, to keep the purchasing price low.

Thus begins best-selling author Laura Lippman’s latest crime novel, Wilde Lake, named after the “village” of her real-life high school years. Lippman graduated from Wilde Lake High School, then she and her family moved to Baltimore, where she still lives and sets most of her novels.

Here are a few more Columbia facts found in the novel that the reader may not be aware of, as noted by Lippman:

When Rouse began purchasing the land for his utopian idea, “There were paranoid, Cold War-fed rumors [purporting to explain the purchases] — Russian spies hoping to get close to the NSA, a West German VW plant.

“Then, in June 1967, Columbia was born as a ‘town,’ comprising four villages....Many of the early buildings in the town center were designed by [world-renowned architect] Frank Gehry, but the houses themselves were generic split-levels.

“Founder Rouse wanted to challenge a lot of ingrained biases in our culture; taste was not among them. He gave people the ticky tacky houses they wanted.”

Lippman noted in an afterword to Wilde Lake that she picked up much of the above info from New City Upon a Hill: A Brief History of Columbia by David Stebenne and Joseph Rocco Mitchell, as well as from the Facebook page named “You Knew You Grew Up in Columbia, MD When…”

Fond high school memories

Lippman — several of whose 25 books (15 featuring private investigator Tess Monaghan) have become New York Times best-sellers — has “very fond and affectionate memories” of her 1974-1977 high school years at Wilde Lake High.

The novel, in fact, opens at a celebration for the high school’s 1980 graduates. The opening events haunt the rest of the novel as it moves between past and present in alternating chapters. 

The 57-year-old author, who was a journalist for some 20 years (12 with the Baltimore Sun), before she became a full-time novelist in 2001, took questions from the Beacon and gave answers via e-mail.

A sense of place, she said, is paramount to her writing.

“I’m pretty sure everything in my life shaped me as a writer. In the case of Columbia, it was probably Wilde Lake High School itself. I was given a lot of freedom to write [there],” she said.

Lippman has returned to Columbia “quite a bit” over the years — her son-in law lived near Clarksville. So how have things changed in the last 40 or so years?

“I’m not sure it’s for me to say how anything has changed. Clearly it’s bigger, more developed,” she said.

How does she feel about life in a “planned” city, as opposed to the wonderfully haphazard mess of such historic cities as Baltimore?

“I think the old Talmudic saying sums it up pretty well,” said Lippman. “Man plans, God laughs.”

Back to Wilde Lake, the book. Washington Post book critic Patrick Anderson called it one of Lippman’s best novels, adding that it “feels like one of her most personal.” He noted that, “You rarely find characterizations as sensitive as these in genre fiction or indeed, in any fiction.”

Lippman was asked how she feels about being seen as a “genre” writer, which usually means not being recognized as writing “serious” fiction.

“Genre,” Lippman said, “is really more of a market niche than a defined way of writing a book. There definitely are no formulas. There aren’t even requirements beyond the inclusion of a crime.”

More than murder

Here’s the plot of Wilde Lake: Lu Brant, the newly elected state’s attorney — a position that her father had famously held — sees a way to quickly build her reputation by trying a homeless man accused of murdering a woman in her home.

“It’s not the kind of case that makes national headlines,” said the book jacket, “but peaceful Howard County doesn’t see many homicides.”

While the murder case forms the basis for the developing story, other closely and sensitively examined concerns, like childhood and family, give real depth to the novel. And certain truths held self-evident, like the overriding importance of truth itself, are given a subtle take by protagonist-attorney-politician Lu Brant.

“I think we hold the truth in too high esteem,” said Brant. “The truth is inert. It has no intrinsic power. Lies have all the power. Would you lie to save your child’s life? I would, in a heartbeat…

“The truth is not a finite commodity that can be contained within identifiable borders. The truth is messy, riotous, overrunning everything. You can never know the whole truth of anything.

“And if you could, you would wish you didn’t,” Brant says.

The attorney’s thoughts on veracity, which come in the middle of the book, have a sadly ironic twist for her in the gripping conclusion of what is a serious novel, whether genre or not.

Early love of detective novels

Lippman is named in the July-August issue of The Atlantic as one of the outstanding female writers of crime fiction, a field that the writer Terrance Rafferty said has been taken over by female writers.

“The most psychologically acute and exciting crime fiction these days is being written by women, who know all the new (and old) places to look for the darkest mysteries,” he wrote, adding:

“Fortunately, the best of the women now writing in the genre have more on their minds than bamboozling credulous readers…In Laura Lippman’s non-serial novels, like What the Dead Know and the new Wilde Lake, she likes to shuttle between the present and the past; mysteries are solved; elegantly, but the dominant mood is elegiac.”

So how did this serious writer of crime fiction get her training in the “genre”?

It wasn’t so much the P.I. Big Boys, like Phillip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler) or Sam Spade (Dashiell Hammett) or Lew Archer (Ross Macdonald), that spurred on Lippman’s Tess Monaghan.

In the beginning (as a pre-adolescent), Lippman read Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and Encyclopedia Brown — a couple of girls and one boy detective.

Then she did read “the big three,” she said, “but they had less influence on me than James A. Cain,” the master of such nail-biters as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce, all of which happened to be made into film noir classics in the 1940s.

Lippman listed Mildred Pierce, as one of her all-time favorite crime novels, along withWhen Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson,Baby, Would I Lie? by Donald Westlake, and Freeze My Margarita by Lauren Milne Henderson.

Joining forces for a play

What she is now working on may come as a surprise. Lippman said she remembers being moved by the plays of Eugene O’Neill and William Inge while in high school.

So now Lippman is co-writing a play, a musical drama, together with her husband, writer and producer David Simon (who created the hugely praised HBO TV series “The Wire,” about Baltimore’s drug underworld), and crime novelist George Pelecanos, who writes novels of Washington, D.C.’s mean streets, but who also wrote for “The Wire.”

“The songs will be taken from the vast catalog of songs written by the Pogues,” a Celtic punk band, Lippman said.

Asked what the play was about and how the project was going, Lippman would only say, “I think it’s going well because none of the collaborators want to kill each other yet.”

So what are the main differences between male and female crime fiction writers?

Lippman told the Beacon, “This is one of those cases where one must answer a question with a question. What are the differences between males and females in life?”

Laura Lippman will be engaging in a discussion with fellow author Linda Fairstein, former chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the District Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. at 7 p.m. on July 28. The bookstore is located at 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 364-1919.